Burns – origins in Ireland, England and Scotland

History of the Irish name Burns. Image copyright Ireland Calling

The surname Burns is common in Ireland but has numerous origins in Ireland, England and Scotland.

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There are a number of variations including Burnes, Burness and Burnis.

The motto on the Burns family crests reads: ‘Perseverantia vincit’. This translates to “Perseverance Conquers”.

Burns in Ireland

In Ireland it can be a derivation of the hugely popular surname O’Byrne. The O’Byrnes originated in Co Wicklow and were descended from Maolmordha, an 11th century King of Leinster. For more on the surname Byrne click here.

So while it is possible that some people with the surname Burns may be able to claim royal heritage, there are other origins to the name.

Burns in Britain

In England the surname developed in the Middle Ages. It comes from the place name of ‘Burnhouse’ in Scotland. Burnhouse is a small village in North Ayreshire.

In Middle English, the word Burn meant ‘stream’ while house still meant ‘house’. So it is likely that the village of Burnhouse would have been built on a stream.

In medieval England and Scotland people would migrate from one town or village to another in order to find work.

They would often be given a surname based on where they came from to differentiate them from other people in their new village with the same personal name.

The name was first recorded in Yorkshire in the 13th century. Despite the name coming from Scotland, it wasn’t until the 16th century that it was recorded there.

British Burns settle in Ireland

While in many cases the name came from the village of Burnhouse, it is also likely to have origins all over the country, starting as nicknames for people who live near a stream.

The name will have travelled to Ireland many times over the centuries. There was a lot of emigration in both directions between Ireland and Scotland.

England often invaded Ireland and often the troops settled there an integrated with the Irish society.

The British finally gained control over Ireland following the Cromwellian invasions in the 17th century. At this time Irish names began to be written down for tax purposes by English clerks.

The name develops

Robert Burns painting by Alexander Nasmyth
Robert Burns painting by Alexander Nasmyth

The clerks spelled the names in a way that they understood which led to them becoming anglicised. It wasn’t just names that became anglicised, the British wanted to eradicate Irish culture and more Irish people began speaking English during this period.

Many people also dropped Gaelic prefixes to their names such as ‘O’ and ‘Mac’ as they became further anglicised as it became harder to find employment for people with an Irish sounding name.

Many people reinstated the prefixes following the 1798 Rebellion as there was a huge surge of patriotism among Irish people. However, the spellings remained in English as this was the language most people now spoke.

This is why there are now variations of the same original Irish name such as Burns, Byrne and O’Byrne.

Burns across the world

The name spread across the globe in the mid-19th century. Ireland was devastated by the potato famine and millions emigrated to escape the horror as people were dying from starvation and disease.

They settled in great numbers in places such as Britain, America, Australia and Canada. Irish names such as Burns and Byrne are popular in all these countries.

As the name arrived in America the origins become slightly blurred again. There is a separate origin for the name in America as it is sometimes an Americanised version of the famous Jewish surname Bernstein.

Famous people named Burns

Ricky Burns. Photo copyright Superdry19 CC3
Ricky Burns

There have been several famous people named Burns who have excelled in their fields over the years.

Robert Burns was a Scottish poet in the 18th century. He was known as Scotland’s favourite son and many of his works are still well known today.

The most famous is Auld Lang Syne, which is sung by people at midnight on New Year’s Eve across the world. There is a statue of Burns in Leith, near Edinburgh.

George Burns was an American musician. He wrote a lot of Disney movies including the score for The Jungle Book and was nominated for four Academy Awards.

Ricky Burns is a Scottish boxer. His career peaked in the early 2010s and he was a three-weight world champion.

Edward Burns is an American actor and director. He has worked on several movies including Saving Private Ryan and Nice Guy Johnny.

Brooke Burns is an American actress. She has appeared in several popular TV series including Baywatch, CSI: Miami, Ally McBeal and Just Shoot Me. She has also appeared in movies such as Shallow Hal and Urban Decay.

Video histories of popular Irish names

Irish names and their meanings

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